Bhai Maharaj Singh, known as a “freedom fighter”, a “revolutionary”, a “saint”, is the first recorded Sikh person in Singapore who had reached there in 1850 as a prisoner of the British. Bhai Maharaj Singh, also described as “Karnivala”, the Wonder Worker who couldn’t be caught, was born as Nihal Singh in 1780 in Rabbon village of Ludhiana district of Punjab.
A man born with a religious bent of mind received khande-di-pahul (baptism) to be a member of the Khalsa and was duly initiated as Bhagvan Singh. He was a very humble person and truly following the tenets of Sikhism, would see divine light in all human beings and address them as “Maharaj”. This soon became an integral part of his personality and everyone started calling him as Bhai Maharaj Singh. He was initially nurtured and trained by Bhai Bir Singh. Bhai Maharaj Singh succeeded him after his death and became the head of the centre at Naurangabad.
Bhai Maharaj Singh shifted to Amritsar and established his centre at Samdu ka Talab. He, along with Baba Ram Singh, toured the Panjab to motivate the Sikhs to save Khalsa raj. He led a movement against the British in the Panjab after the first Anglo-Sikh war. Due to his involvement in the Prema plot to assassinate Henry Lawrence, the British restricted his movements to Naurangabad and confiscated his property. Bhai Maharaj, as a result, went underground and was declared not only an outlaw but a reward for his arrest was also announced.
Bhai Maharaj Singh, with 600 Sikhs, continued his activities against the British. In 1848 he fought in the battles of Ramnagar, Chillianvala and Ravalpindi and exhorted the Sikhs to lay down their lives for their country. His courage even won him admirers from the British. Henry Lawrence recorded, “Bhai Mahararaj Singh, a Sikh priest of reputed sanctity, and of great influence, was the first man who raised the standards of rebellion beyond the confines of Multan in 1848, and the only leader of note who did not lay down his arms to Sir Walter Gilberts at Rawalpindi.”
Bhai Maharaj Singh was admired by a number of people and had a large following. McLeod while writing a report on Bhai Maharaj Singh, writes, “I am convinced that Bhai Maharaj Singh is a remarkable person. He has all the attributes of a saint. He has unusual self-control and self-confidence. He seems to have the power to foresee the coming events and has the qualities of a great leader whom people would like to obey.”
He was even compared to Jesus Christ by Henry Vansittart, the deputy commissioner of Jalandhar, who arrested him on December 28, 1849 with the help of an informer. He writes, “The Guru is no ordinary man. He is to the natives what Jesus was to the most zealous of Christians. His miracles were seen by tens of thousands, and are more implicitly believed than those worked by the ancient prophets”.
Bhai Maharaj Singh was a great influence on people and thousands of people used to come to the jail to visit him. The British, fearing another rebellion in Punjab, shifted him to Singapore and kept him in solitary confinement, where the great martyr breathed his last. A gurdwara, the Silat Road Sikh Temple, at Birkit Merah is dedicated to Bhai Maharaj Singh who was a true lived example of Sant-Sipahi, a saint as well as a warrior.
Kulbir Kaur teaches sociology at Shyama Prasad Mukherji College, Delhi University...