Birth and childhood (1904-16 c.e.):
Biography of Bhagat Puran Singh – Think of selfless service and, like Bhai Ghanaiya Ji, Bhagat Puran Singh’s name automatically comes onto your lips. He was born to Mata Mehtab Kaur on 4th June, 1904 in a Hindu Sanatan Dharam Family in village Rajewal, Tehsil: Khanna, Distt: Ludhiana. His father, Lala Shibu Mal, was a money-lender, who used to pay income tax of Rs. 52/- and land revenue of Rs. 200/- every year. Bhagat Puran Singh’s childhood name was Ramji Das.
At the time of his birth, the family had four milch buffaloes and a chariot. A water pitcher, a chaati (a big earthen container) of ghee (clarified butter) and those of sugar and shakkar used to be put in a row beside a wall. (apparently, these things were considered the signs of prosperity of a village family)
His mother, though not educated, was very wise and religious-minded. Both, his mother and father, used to go for listening to sermons relating to Ramayana, Maha Bharata and Bhagwad Gita, in the village. An ex-service man, a sikh gentleman, used to visit their home and narrate a lot about Sikhism to his mother. She considered planting of saplings and then watering them regularly a virtuous act. On the crossing- well (Chauraste wali khuhi) she used to serve water to men and cattle equally, the whole day long. Ramji Das used to help her in this good work. While walking, the mother would ask him to pick up thorns, long thorns, stones, etc. from the way so that the same did not pierce into someone’s feet, etc. She would also ask to pick up brick-bats from the way so that those did not obstruct the cart-wheels thereby putting more stress onto the bullocks. She would also tell Ramji Das to see that no ants, insects or other tiny creatures were got crushed under his feet. She would also send him onto the roof to spread grains before various birds. All these things together helped Ramji Das to inculcate deep feelings of love, compassion, sympathy, etc. for all the mankind, animals, birds., trees, etc.etc; and, in other words, for all species of flora and fauna at large. This also helped Ramji Das to develop an urge for selfless service and help to others in need and distress.
The mother would also send Ramji Das to listen to the singing of hymns by Sant Brahm Das. Before serving him breakfast, she would send him to pay obeisance in the Mandir. She would also relate stories of various religious personalities, saints, etc, to Ramji Das. This helped him acquire religious leanings.
Whether it was Bairagi Sadhu of Shiv Mandir or Udasi Saint or Ravidasia Mahant or Sarangi- Wala Muslman, the mother would make Ramji Das to serve them, with both hands, a handful of flour or grain. This made Ramji Das a willing giver of alms and a philanthropist.
The mother loved Ramji very deeply and intensely. On his birthday she would invite 7 girls (10-12 years old spinsters) and serve them good food. But, before serving food, she would make him wash their feet. This made Ramji Das virtuous and respectful towards the women-folk.
Ramji’s parents were so good- hearted that, during the plague of 1905 C.E., they would go house-to-house to meet people & enquire after their welfare, who had left their homes for fear of rats and put jhuggies (shanties) in the fields. At the time of drought of 1913 C.E., a lot of money belonging to Shibu Mal stood given as debt to the various persons which had soared to Rs. 50,000/- or so. And, in addition to this, at this difficult juncture, Shibu Mal took another sum of Rs. 2000 or 4000, whatever he had as ready cash with him, and bought one wagon load of maize and two wagon loads of bhoosa (toodi) from some far-off place and distributed the same among his natives from Khanna Railway Station itself, saying, “give me the money when you have it. If you could not, then let it go in the name of God”.
In the hostel of a khanna school (1916-23 C.E):
No debtor of Shibu Mal could pay back his debt, thereby turning the money-lender a pauper. But, Ramji’s mother was determined to make him continue his studies. Ramji’s elder and step-brother (Shibu Mal had a son and a daughter from his first wife who had since died and Mehtab Kaur was his second wife) hated him to such an extent that he (step-brother) did not even acknowledge him as his own brother. Mehtab Kaur didn’t want her son, Ramji Das, to grow up in such a scornful and insulting atmosphere full of inferiority complex. Thus, she, though not in a position to defray the hostel expenses, put him in the hostel of a school at Khanna (which was at a distance of six miles from his native village, Rajewal) and paid the hostel charges by serving as a house-maid at Rs. 10 per month, first at a very distant place, Montgomery and then at Lahore. He remained in the hostel for seven years from 1916 to 1923 C.E.
How and why did ramji das think of becoming a sikh ?
He took Matriculation Examination in 1923 at Ludhiana. While returning, he entered into a Shiva Temple to pay obeisance. There he washed clean the idols of various Hindu Deities and put them back at their proper places and bowed before them in reverence and devotion. Seeing this, the Pujari of the Mandir was deeply impressed. There were also five students learning Sanskrit in that Mandir. They too were greatly influenced by this gesture of Ramji Das. Meanwhile, the lunch hour came and they all sat to partake of the langar. Ramji also followed suit, but the Pujari caught him by the arm and made him stand up. This hurt Ramji Das deeply who left the mandir with a heavy heart. Being empty-pocket and empty-stomach, he took his way to Khanna on foot. On the way, he met two men sitting on a pucca platform around a well, one of them reciting Rehras (the evening prayer) and the other sitting beside. One of them offered Ramji Das to spend the night at his place where the former served him with Shakkar & Ghee (raw sugar & clarified butter) since he had no person for cooking the food in his home at that point of time. In the morning, Ramji, on the advice of his host, reached Gurdwara Reru Sahib. Thick and sweet lassi (butter-less churned curd) was being served to the sangat. The tea was also very delicious and milk-rich. At about 10.00 O’clock, langar was served, which included sweetened rice, ghee-mixed daal and well-baked loaves of bread. Sewadars were fondly serving langar, respectfully saying, “Please have parshada (loaf of bread), have rice and have daal”. Ramji Das got stunned as also satiated.
At about 3.00 P.M., he saw some 5 to7 army-men (on leave) sitting with the senior sant, Baba Attar Singh ji, and listening to his (Baba’s) spiritual discourse (talk) which presented quite a family look. In the evening kirtan (singing of gurbani) took place. The Rehras (the evening prayer) and the Ardas (the sikh prayer) had a very touching and profound effect on Ramji’s mind. The sewadars looking after the cows and the bullocks told him that they were not the paid sewadars of the Dera, but had voluntarily dedicated their lives in the service of the Dera (Gurdwara). (On the other hand, Ramji had been worried that after the examination, he won’t be allowed to stay in the hostel and his home had already been ruined and where would he stay?) So now, having conversed with the sewadars, he felt satisfied that there was also such a home in this world which would never get destroyed and where there was no problem of board and lodging and by living wherein one could find ways and means of one’s own growth and progress. And he, thus, assured himself that he had found a place good enough for the development of his body, mind and soul. He would now think of ways and means required for the development of his physical, mental and spiritual faculties and find time to think and identify as to which were the things and works required to be done in this world but were not being attempted. And, he would take initiative to attempt those. Thus, a day and a night spent in Gurdwara Reru Sahib and earlier a few hours spent in the Shiv Mandir of Ludhiana proved to be the turning point in Ramji’s life.
Before this, around 1918, he had seen the A.D.C. of Maharaja Patiala at the Annual Jor Mela of Gurdwara Fatehgarh Sahib with a pressed beard and a well-tied double turban, which he had termed as the first glimpse of the grandeur of Gursikhi culture and had expressed his desire to his mother to become a sikh. His mother had then advised him to wait till such time the 10th class examination was cleared.
IN LAHORE (1924-47):
Ramji Das failed in the Matriculation Examination but his mother, who had by then shifted from Montgomery to Lahore and joined service in Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, called him to Lahore and made him re-appear in the said examination from the S.B. High School, Lahore. Till examination, Ramji stayed in the school hostel. After the examination, S. Harnam Singh, a flour-mill owner in whose house Ramji’s mother was working, kept him in his house and advised him “to regularly visit Gurdwara Dehra Sahib, till the declaration of his result, and spend the day doing sewa of various kinds in the gurdwara and come home in the evening. Whosoever had achieved anything in this world, had done so from the gurughar only”. Thus, Ramji started going to the gurdwara daily. It was in the gurdwara itself that Ramji got his name Puran Singh. The prefix, Bhagat, was later on added by the noted sikh-brain Giani Kartar Singh. This is how he became ‘Bhagat Puran Singh’ from ‘Ramji Das’ i.e. a Sikh from a Hindu.
S. Harnam Singh was also a banker and Ramji’s mother used to request S. Harnam Singh’s son, S. Hari Singh, to give him (Ramji) a job in his bank. But, S. Harnam Singh had told his son, “We cannot keep Puran Singh as our servant, who is destined to perform only the Guru’s work.” S. Harnam Singh had also spoken to his mother, “Look, Bibi Ji! Your son is bound to become a big man one day.”
Seeing him work in Gurudwara Dehra Sahib, Mahant Teja Singh showered over him a lot of praise, affection and encouragement. Bhagat Ji used to drive the he-buffalo making the halti (a smaller version of Persian wheel) work, feed it, scrub clean the used utensils, spread taat (long, narrow carpet), make suitable arrangements for the night stay of the pilgrims, serve the handicapped and destitute patients, take them to the hospital, arrange for their medicine, serve in the jora-ghar (place for keeping shoes of pilgrims before entering the holy precincts of the Gurdwara) and keep on listening to the Kirtan (singing of the hymns). When he got free from this hard routine, he would go to library to acquire knowledge of various types from the news-papers, magazines, books, etc. He would also beg money from the effluent to help the poor students.
He also acquired knowledge about the population growth; shortage of food grains; ruthless cutting of the forests; environmental pollution; fast depletion of petrol, diesel, coal, etc; soil erosion; silting up of dam reservoirs or lakes; social evils; unemployment, etc. and their bad effects. He started giving a serious thought to all these national problems and the social evils, and as a result of these studies, he installed his own printing-press in the Pingalwara and started printing the selected eye-opening articles for free distribution among the general public with a view to making them aware of these problems and social evils.
Thinking of forming the Pingalwara:
Bhagat Ji has himself written, “Seeing the sad plight of the destitute patients, whereas I started thinking of establishing an organization to look after such patients and get them treated from various hospitals, it also came to my mind to go through various types of magazines and books, etc and try to know as to what had the developed countries thought and done to solve the problem of this neglected segment of the society.”
Death of the mother:
Mata Mehtab Kaur, the mother of Bhagat Puran Singh, died on 23rd June, 1930 within the precincts of Gurdwara Chheharata Sahib. She had been suffering from some incurable disease for the last about 2½ years. This made Bhagat Ji feel very sad and lonely. But, with the lapse of time, he got stabilized and started seriously and intensely thinking of and serving the suffering humanity, as per the word given to his mother.
Founding of the Pingalwara:
In 1934, a 4- year spastic child was left early in the morning, under cover of darkness, at the main entrance of Gurdwara Dehra Sahib, Lahore. The mother of this child had died about three months back and his father, having looked-after him for about four months’ time, had suddenly disappeared, leaving the child at the premises of the farmer with whom he had been working as a farm labourer. After waiting for a few days for his father’s return, the farmer alongwith another companion took the child to various orphanages in Amritsar and Lahore, but, since the child was not able to care for himself on his own, no one accepted him. At long last, they took the child to Gurdwara Dehra Sahib. But, here also, the gurdwara management expressed its inability to keep the child. The two farmers spent the night in the gurdwara and disappeared early in the morning, under cover of darkness, leaving the child at the main entrance of the Gurdwara. Everybody was ready to feed the child but none came forward to take him under his care. As a result, the child fell ill with indigestion and got smeared all over with his own excretion. At last, the head granthi (priest) of the Gurdwara, Jathedar Achhar Singh, performed Ardaas (the sikh prayer) and handed over the child to Bhagat Puran Singh and said, “Puran Singh, only you please look after the child.” And thus, that very day the foundation of the Pingalwara was laid.
Bhagat Ji gave so much love to the child that he even named him ‘Piara’ (the loved one). He made his back and shoulders the permanent abode of the child. Some people viewed it with surprise and scorn and some foolish ones even jeered at him. But, Bhagat Ji came out of this peculiar test successfully and never looked back.
In the refugee-camp of khalsa college, Amritsar (18.08.1947):
At the time of partition of the country in 1947, Bhagat Ji came from Lahore to Amritsar’s refugee camp in the Khalsa College premises on 18.08.1947. He had one sick old man, a 17-year Piara Singh on his back and Rs. one & annas five in his pocket. They had nothing else with them except the clothes they were wearing. It was a transitory refugee camp where people continued coming and leaving the camp for onward journey to other places in the country. Their number varied from 23000 to 25000 at one point of time. Among them there used to be some sick, old and handicapped destitutes. Bhagat Ji assumed voluntarily the duty of looking after them on his own. This camp functioned till 31.12.1947. Its commandant was Principal Jodh Singh. After the camp was abandoned, Bhagat Ji was left with 7 to 8 destitutes under his care whom he took from Khalsa College to a place in front of the Chief Khalsa Diwan on the G.T. Road. From this place to a foot-path of the railway station. From 01.10.1948 onwards, he shifted to a place near the gate of Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital (then V.J. Hospital) under a banyan tree in front of the ‘deori’ of the Ram Bagh. This way he spent about 1½ years shifting from one place to another and so on. During this period he used to beg ‘roties’ (loaves of bread) from various houses/’dhabas’, look after the ailing destitutes, take them to hospital, wash them clean of their excretion, wash their dirty clothes, sweep clean the place (read katcha floor), scrub and clean the utencils, etc. etc. All these duties, Bhagat ji performed all alone. When the number of inmates grew to 22, he employed a part-time sweeper. He acquired one old rickshaw, removed its fore wheel alongwith the part-frame and tied two bamboos to the back wheels and converted it into a hand-pulled rickshaw to carry the sick to the hospital. This was the first ‘ambulance’ of Bhagat ji’s Pingalwara. Thus, he became walking- stick of the destitute old men, guard of the forlorn and hapless women and guardian of the orphaned children.
Spending a hard life on the road-berms and foot-paths, he occupied an evacuee kothi (house) near the Civil Surgeon’s Office, which had to be vacated after sometime. Then, in 1950, he occupied the incomplete building of Inder Palace Cinema and a Sarai in the Ram Talai area.
Help in the formation of Pingalwara:
No doubt, Piara Singh was the main cause for the formation of Pingalwara, many other good-hearted men and philanthropists extended a lot of help, support and encouragement to Bhagat Ji. But, he has brought on record, “Had Narain Singh and Kundha Singh not extended their full help and cooperation during the days Pingalwara was functioning on the road- berms, it would not have been possible for Pingalwara to come into existence. So much so that Kundha Singh did not even accept an offer from S. Partap Singh Kairon, then a Minister in the government of Punjab, of a good job, but preferred to do selfless service in Pingalwara.” (Kundha Singh had spent some time in jail alongwith Partap Singh Kairon in 1942.) That’s why the contribution of these two gentlemen (Narain Singh and Kundha Singh) is worth-mentioning.
Coming up of Pingalwara at the place of present head office of Pingalwara: After tossing from one place to another for eleven long years, Bhagat Ji purchased the present site of the Head Office for Rs. 16964/-only from the D.R.M.O (District Rent and Managing Officer) Amritsar on 27.11.1958. This could become possible due to the instructions of the then Union Rehabilitation Minister Mehar Chand Khanna, to whom Dr. Gopi Chand Bhargava, C.M. Pb. had spoken. Dr. Bhargawa knew Bhagat ji from his Lahore days and was his admirer as well. This way the Pingalwara came into being in a proper way. The All India Pingalwara Society (Regd.), Amritsar had already been got registered as such from the Registrar of Companies, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh on 06.03.1957. Bhagat puran singh, the man: The qualities inherited by Bhagat Puran Singh from his mother such as compassion, righteousness, truthfulness, contentment, etc. blossomed further due to service rendered under the aegis of Gurdwara Dehra Sahib Lahore. Singing of gurbani and the healthy atmosphere of the Gurdwara made Bhagat ji a staunch and true Sikh. Knowledge acquired from the libraries and selfless social service and the care of the destitute and uncared patients made him a complete man. That’s why he was a saint (Bhagat), physically, mentally and morally a complete person (Puran) and fearless like a lion (Singh) at the same time. L Alongside the service to the weak and the suffering mankind, he would always share the happiness and sorrow of his fellow sewadars. He believed in the existence of God in every living being, and without any consideration of caste, creed, colour or religion, he would serve every destitute and forlorn, mentally and physically challenged ailing person. It is a miracle of the God’s grace that he served with his own hands various inmates suffering from very serious, incurable/terminal and infectious diseases but he contracted none.
Any work concerning the general welfare and good of the people /society such as, picking up nails, horse shoes, banana peels, stone and glass pieces, animal and human excretion lying on roads was not a trifle or below dignity for him. He would always travel by cycle, rickshaw, tonga, or railway train (III class). He had the firm belief that whatever achievement he had got was due to the grace of Gurdwaras, whether it was Dehra Sahib Lahore or Golden Temple Amritsar. He would feel proud and elated by calling himself a sweeper and a watchman of ‘gurughar’ (gurdwara or an abode of God). He never considered an award, rank or decoration greater than the God’s grace. He felt very contented by returning the Padam Shri Award after the ‘Blue Star’ operation on the Golden temple and the Akal Takhat early in june, 1984. To render selfless service to the suffering with own hands and to acquire knowledge from libraries etc. were his mission as well as passion. Some of his personality traits are described as under:-
i) He was so much unattached to worldly things that in the big and beautiful building of the head office which he got built by his ownself, he did not have even an almirah for personal use, let alone a room. After facing a lot of hardships, lacs of rupees started coming to Pingalwara as donation, but he would spend all generously on the care and welfare of the inmates who were destitute, physically or mentally challenged, ailing or aged, etc. etc. and never keep any money with himself.
ii) Morally, he was so high and perfect that he gave fatherly support and affection to numerous women, maltreated by the society (or victims of domestic violence), among whom there used to be many beautiful and young girls and women, but he never viewed them with lewd or lecherous eyes. Whosoever got recovered from mental derangement (which used to be the general problem of the victims of domestic violence) and was able to recollect and narrate her address was sent back home. This was the result of deep impress of the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev ji on Bhagat Ji’s mind.
iii) His spirit of philanthropy and voluntary service was so strong that he himself picked up worms and maggots from the wounds of the inmates and washed their dirty clothes smeared with loose excretions and vomitings but never disliked or hated doing this unpleasant duty. Rather, he would call Piara Singh his God with the remark: “had he not come under my care, Pingalwara might not have come into existence.”
iv) He was so much firm about his word that if his mother asked him not to get any share out of his father’s assets, he never looked towards that side. If he promised with his mother to remain bachelor for whole of his life and do everything in the name of God, he stuck to it and never wavered till the end.
v) He was so tender-hearted that when it became known to him that only that leather was considered best, which was procured by beating the cattle harshly to death and then flaying/stripping the skin from the carcass, he stopped wearing leather-shoes. And, then onwards wore wooden-sandals only.
vi) He was so much concerned about unemployment, that when it became known to him that the replacement of handloom by machine gives rise to unemployment, he resolved to wear khaddar made by hand-looms only for whole of his life. He also started giving khaddar to every co-worker regularly alongwith his monthly pay. This practice is still continuing.
vii) His diet was so simple and frugal that he would partake only of whatever was prepared in the langar. During the hard times of scarcity in the initial stages, he was quite satisfied with whatever little was available for his personal consumption.
viii) He was so much concerned about the social evils and national problems, such as population explosion, environmental pollution, depletion of natural resources (petroleum products, coal, etc.), ruthless cutting of forests, soil erosion, etc., that he would search for good articles on these topics in various journals and news-papers and get them printed in his own printing press and distribute free of cost among the general public so that they could become aware and helpful in finding out some solutions at the national, regional, local and personal levels. To cut it short, Bhagat Puran Singh remained constantly worried, till the end of his life, about the health of earth, air and water, solution of national and social problems and care and selfless service to the suffering humanity. And, he did so much work in this direction that he became a living legend during his life time.
End of a phenomenon:
Bhagati Ji had become a living legend during his life time. He was not simply a single person but an institution in himself, and a phenomenon to watch over.
He fell ill on 20th June, 1992 and was admitted in Waryam Singh Hospital at Amritsar where he was operated upon on 23rd June. All of a sudden, his condition deteriorated and he was air-lifted to the P.G.I. Chandigarh where he underwent another operation. But, unfortunately, side-by-side, his heart and lungs also got involved, and he breathed his last on 5th August, 1992.
Great men like Bhagat Puran Singh come into this world after ages, but, as per the laws of nature, they too are destined to leave this mortal world.
Although, Bhagat Ji is physically no more amongst us, but he has left behind his ever-lasting memorial in the shape of Pingalwara, which is home for the homeless, a hope for the forlorn, a hospital for the sick and old destitutes, a cradle for the orphaned or abandoned children and a safe haven for the exploited and mentally-deranged young women. Thus, this multi-functional institution has immortalized its founder.
To keep this hard-built institution functioning, Bhagat ji, in all his wisdom, nominated, through his WILL, Dr. Bibi Inderjit Kaur as his successor, who served Bhagat Ji also, during his last illness till the end, with a daughter’s love and devotion, and now she is serving the suffering humanity in the Pingalwara quite diligently. She and her team of colleagues in the management and administration and other co-workers consider the care and service of 1450 inmates (as on 31.03.2011) of Pingalwara as their sacred duty and their true homage to Bhagat Ji too. That’s why the Pingalwara institution, with the grace of God, is marching ahead on the path of progress un-deterred and un-daunted.