Published on Monday, 24 September 2018 16:44
Written by Andrew Loh
Hailed as a freedom fighter, died a martyr, and revered as a saint. Yet, Bhai Maharaj Singh is little known in Singapore, except within the small Sikh community here. In the second half of the 19th century, more than a hundred years before Singapore unbound the shackles of colonial rule, he was already leading the resistance against British hegemonic ambitions in the Punjab, North India.
His role in this would see him eventually deported to Singapore in 1850, to die an ignoble death in a prison in Outram Road after 6 years in solitary confinement.
While the last years of his life may have been spent in a cell on a penal settlement in Southeast Asia, his heroic fight against the British to protect his motherland and his people is remembered to this day.
The events that led to Bhai Maharaj Singh’s fate began when the Punjab was under Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s rule. 40 years of peace flourished between the Hindus, Muslims and the Sikh people under his reign.
After his death in 1839, Bhai Bir Singh succeeded him.
Bhai Bir Singh headed the dera (settlement, camp) in the village of Naurangabad, north-west of today’s New Delhi. The young Nihal Singh (Bhai Maharaj Singh) would eventually join the dera and become a disciple of Bhai Bir Singh.
Nihal Singh was deeply pious with an interest in religion and spirituality, and immersed himself in Naam Simran (meditation) and Sewa (community service). During his time in the dera, legends of his power to work miracles spread, and he was highly respected. He, in return, showed great respect to each of the thousands of people he served at the dera and would address each one as “maharaj ji”, meaning “master” or “guru”. It was because of this that he himself became popularly known as Bhai Maharaj Singh. (“Bhai” comes from the Sanskrit word “bhratr” which means “brother”.)
The dera also served as a military base. From here, Bhai Bir Singh, who was a retired soldier and an ascetic, would lead the resistance against the rule of the Dogras over the Punjab.
In 1844, Hira Singh Dogra, leading 20,000 troops and 50 cannons, attacked the dera, killing many, including Bhai Bir Singh.
Shocked by the defeat, the Sikhs installed Bhai Maharaj Singh as the successor to Bhai Bir Singh.
Taking advantage of the conflict, the British, who had been waiting for the right time to intervene, decided to do so in 1846 and declared war on the Sikh empire. The war would last two years, during which the British arrested and exiled the mother of the proclaimed Maharajah of the Punjab, Dalip Singh, the youngest son of Ranjit Singh.
The British abducted Dalip Singh, who was about 10-years old then, and later exiled him to England at the age of 15.
In 1849, the British annexed the Punjab.
Despite the British’s best effort to capture him, Bhai Maharaj Singh evaded arrest, and emerged in various parts of the Punjab to rally large crowds of people to rise up and expel the British from their land.
Mounting resentment against the foreign powers soon spilt into open resistance, leading to the second Anglo-Sikh war in 1848-1849, two years after the first conflict. It was paramount that Bhai Maharaj Singh be captured. The British placed a Rs20,000 bounty on Bhai Maharaj Singh’s head.
On 28 December 1849, the fearless revoluntary was finally captured by the British in the town of Adampur, in the Jalandhar district. An informant had tipped off the British.
“The guru is no ordinary man,” wrote Vansittart, the Deputy Commissioner of the Jalandhar district who had captured Bhai Maharaj Singh. “He is to the natives what Jesus was to the most zealous of Christians. His miracles were seen by the tens of thousands, and are more implicitly believed than those worked by the ancient prophets.”
Indeed, the British were in awe of his courage and military skills.
The Commissioner of the Doab, in a letter to the Governor-General of India, described Bhai Maharaj Singh as a man with the “spirit of bold and reckless daring”, and that had he remained at large, “more outrages of an alarming character would have been attempted.”
“It appears to me certain that the guru was in some respects a very remarkable man,” the Commissioner said. “He evinced an uncommon aptitude for forming general plans and having these simultaneously carried out by different agents, acting independently, marks of great forethought and design on the part of the guru…”
Such admiration and fear of Bhai Maharaj Singh’s influence and status with the people were the reasons why the British decided not to put him on trial in India. The safest place, they decided, was a penal settlement in Southeast Asia.
Bhai Maharaj Singh, along with his disciple, Khurruck Singh, were shackled and transported to Calcutta. There, both men were placed on board the boat “Mahomed Shaw”, and were deported, as state prisoners, to Singapore in July 1850.
Vansittart, perhaps because of his admiration and respect for Bhai Maharaj Singh, instructed that the guru “should not be treated with unnecessary vigour.” The 80-year old guru was to be placed “in one of the upper rooms of the new jail’, a building along Outram Road.
The prisoners arrived in Singapore on 9 July 1850.
Despite the instructions to treat Bhai Maharaj Singh with dignity and respect, however, the local authorities here did the opposite. The two windows in his cell were walled up, shutting out all sources of light; and an iron gate was installed in the verandah to isolate the prisoner.
Because of these, the 14ft by 15ft cell had been “further rendered dark, dinghy and absolutely unhealthy”, according to the Secret Consultation Papers of 28 February 1851.
Bhai Maharaj Singh was held in solitary confinement for three of the six years he was incarcerated.
In his last days, despite the recommendations of a doctor, he was refused time out of the darkened cell, or the dungeon, as one report put it.
By this time, he had become practically blind, and had developed rheumatic pains in his feet and ankles. “He is now all but blind from milky cataracts in both eyes, he is able to distinguish black from white, but cannot guide himself from one place to another,” a medical report from the doctor in 1853 said. “His health in other respects is good, he eats well and is generally cheerful.”
3 years later, another medical report brought worse news. The diagnosis on 1 July 1856 said:
“[Maharaj Singh’s] health during the last two months has been very much impaired. A cancerous sore has formed on the left side of his tongue, which on different occasions has caused considerable loss of blood, and the glands on the same side of the neck have become swollen and contusive. For two or three weeks he has eaten very little and for several days he has taken only a little kanjee and water. I have formed a very unfavourable opinion of the case and take the liberty to recommend that both prisoners may be allowed a little freedom for the benefit of change of air, as the smell from the cancerous sore is very offensive and felt throughout their apartments. Maharaj Singh [is in] a very delicate state…”
4 days after that report, Bhai Maharaj Singh died, aged 86.
He was cremated on a plot of land outside the prison grounds, with the rites believed to have been performed by his disciple Khurruck Singh.
Later, rumours spread that an unmarked samadh (tombstone) erected on the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) was that of a Sikh saint imprisoned by the British in the 19th century. It is also believed that the tombstone was first erected on land outside the Outram Road prison, where Bhai Maharaj Singh was held, and later moved to the SGH grounds.
In 1966, because of development plans by the government, the tombstone was relocated to where it stands today, on the grounds of the Silat Road Gurdwara. (“Gurdwara” means a Sikh place of worship.)
Sikhs hold prayers at the samadh, and regard the tombstone as that belonging to Bhai Maharaj Singh, saint-soldier.
Bhai Maharaj Singh is not only considered the first Sikh in Singapore, he also epitomises “all the true qualities of a great Sant-Sipahi (saint-soldier) of the Khalsa Panth.
“[He] is proclaimed as a shaheed (martyr) who died trying to save the Sikh kingdom from the imperialistic ambitions of the British,” said senior counsel and former Member of Parliament, Davinder Singh in “Singapore’s Early Sikh Pioneers”. “His heroic and saintly deeds have left an indelible impression on the hearts and minds of Singapore Sikhs. Bhai Maharaj Singh is particularly special to us because of his brief residence in this country.”
It would be almost 100 years after Bhai Maharaj Singh’s death that India would see independence from the British (in 1947), and some 16 years after that for Singapore to be free from British rule as well.
While he may have fought the British in the Punjab, Bhai Maharaj Singh’s efforts also contributed to the eventual withdrawal of the British from lands it had colonised, including Singapore, and we should be thankful for all that he sacrificed, including his own life.
It is believed that Sikh migrants started to arrive in Singapore in the latter half of the 1880s. Its population here stands at between 12,000 to 15,000 today.
The Bhai Maharaj Singh memorial in Singapore was opened in 2010.
*Khalsa Panth, or “Khalsa creed”. Khalsa refers to both a special group of initiated Sikh warriors, as well as a community that considers Sikhism as its faith.