Bhagat Puran Singh

Bhagat Puran Singh

personal details

Born: June 4, 1904, Punjab, India
bhagat puran singh
bhagat puran singh

Died: August 5, 1992, Amritsar


Puran Singh was an embodiment of unselfishness and service. Khushwant Singh called him Mother Teresa with a beard.
Puran Singh was born in a Hindu family in Rajewal village near Ludhiana, Punjab, in 1904. His father Shibu Mall named his son Ramji Das. While still a child, Ramji helped his mother in bathing the idols of the local Shiva temple. He grew up under the influence of his mother who encouraged him to hear kirtans (devotional songs) in a gurdwara (Sikh temple) also. His visits to the gurdwara became more frequent and he sensed a certain degree of warmth which he found lacking in a temple. He learnt more about Sikh gurus and their sacrifices and preachings. What impressed him most was the humility and sewa (service) to society which the gurus preached.
Ramji was put in the village school but he was not interested in attending classes and had gone only half-way to primary level when his formal education ended. When the family moved to Lahore, gurdwara Dera Sahib became his second home and he started doing sewa (service) in the gurdwara as a sevadar (volunteer). Still in his teens, he was converted to Sikhism and his uncut hair and gradually growing beard became the external symbols of his adopted religion. His name was changed to Puran. His urge to know more about Sikhism led him to libraries, the most important being Dayal Singh Library managed by the Brahmo Samaj. He read widely and did not confine his study to the tenets of Sikhism. Soon he became a well informed man. What a school and classroom could not give him, the library did, proving the dictum that real education is self education. Besides reading about the lives of Sikh gurus he read about history, population explosion, family planning, environment, pollution, social welfare and myriad other subjects.
An unexpected incident changed his life. Impressed by his selfless service, Puran Singh was entrusted with the responsibility of bringing up a three-year-old crippled child abandoned by his parents outside Gurdwara Dera Sahib at Lahore. This was in 1924 when Puran Singh himself was hardly twenty. The child was named Piara Singh, and had suffered paralysis of the arms and legs. He also suffered from speech deficiency. It became Puran Singh’s mission to look after this unfortunate child. This was the beginning of a lifelong mission to serve and save thousands of India’s physically challenged people. He had no money and often had to carry the crippled child on his back from place to place. He was subjected to public ridicule but he persisted, ignoring the mockery and banter of society. Puran Singh found time to roam about the roads and lanes of Lahore picking up nails, horseshoes, spikes, bricks and pebbles so that people did not get hurt. For more than two decades Puran Singh thus roamed the streets of Lahore, often carrying Piara Singh on his back.
Then came the partition of the country (1947). More than half of Lahore was burnt down. Thousands of Hindus and Sikhs were killed or converted and the lucky ones were driven out. Puran Singh crossed over to India, with Piara Singh on his back. He came to Amritsar and found refuge in the Khalsa College refugee camp where thousands of unfortunate refugees from (what was now Pakistan) were huddled like sheep. Puran Singh saw misery writ large on their faces. There were old people who had no one to look after them; there were women who could not bear the shock and humiliation and had gone insane. There were sick and infirm people for whom nobody seemed to care. Puran Singh decided to do something for those unfortunate individuals in an organized way. His sincerity of purpose attracted people's attention. Soon a group of service minded youth joined him. Puran Singh and his devoted small team of workers then took under their wing more physically challenged and the mentally ill. That was the beginning of the institution called ‘Pingalwara’ (literally home for the cripples). It was formally inaugurated in 1948. To finance his venture Puran Singh put hundreds of small black wooden boxes at strategic places like bus-stands, road crossings, gurdwaras, railway stations bearing crude messages in Hindi, Gurumukhi, Urdu and English reminding people about their duty to their fellow beings who were invalid and needed help. When he ran out of money, Puran Singh would sit outside the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) begging people to donate money for the noble cause. Within seven years Pingalwara moved to its own building on the GT. Road, Amritsar. Pingalwara is nonsectarian. ‘People are my God’, Puran Singh used to say. The number of inmates in Pingalwara grew. Those who were without resources, without anyone to look after them, those who were the discards of the society were all welcome in the Pingalwara _ the insane, the paralytic, and the seriously injured and infected, the invalid, aged and deaf-and-dumb all found an abode in Pingalwara. They were fed and looked after by sewadars (volunteers) who got meagre salary. Puran Singh saw to it that no helpless patient would die on the roadside unattended and uncared for, Thus Pingalwara also served as a sort of boarding house for patients who were being treated in hospitals and private nursing homes, who could not afford to stay in hospitals and nursing homes.
Puran Singh had a much wider vision than caring for the crippled. To spread his message, which covered many areas like conservation, environment, pollution, family planning, dowry, drug menace, Hindu-Sikh unity, care of animals etc., he had established a printing press within the precincts of the Pingalwara. Here he got printed pamphlets, booklets. Posters and placards on recycled paper for distribution for a farthing among general public. A tall, sturdy man with a flowing snow-white beard and clad in loose white Khadi shirt and wearing an untidy huge saffron turban, he would sit cross-legged distributing such useful literature on topics dear to his heart. Their contents would shock you, educate you and ‘seek the milk of kindness out of you’. His writings are the result of deep study. He used to subscribe to two dozen regional, national and international dailies and magazines and scanned all of them. “What obsesses us most -- the daily obscenities of politicians and editorial homilies of journalists _ did not occupy his attention, but he read avidly the news which concerned the people, the society at large and the values that ought to govern us. Through wide reading he had developed a scientific and rational thinking yet so deeply rooted in the soil of our glorious history, culture and religion. As he talks one could see the zeal of a child eager to learn. He is gentle, soft and sublimely uncritical of anything around him. To him all of Gods creations are sacred, be they animal, vegetable or mineral or whatever." Today, besides Amritsar, Pingalwara functions at five other places, Jalandhar, Pandori, Goindwal Sahib, Palsora and Sangrur, all in Punjab. There are over five hundred inmates in these Pingalwaras where they are looked after by 250 sewadars. Food, beddings, clothes and even medicines are provided gratis. Early in life, Puran Singh had taken the vow of celibacy so that he could devote his life for the welfare of the people.
Bhagat Puran Singh had become a legend in his lifetime. Nobody in living memory has done so much for the poor and the crippled in the Punjab. Hundreds of unbearable lives were made worth living by him. Puran Singh became a metaphor of help and self-sacrifice in a world full of misery. His main source of money was the common man. He worked single-handedly braving all odds. He did not perform miracles to earn sainthood. The only miracle he performed was the Pingalwara which has transfigured and immortalized him. His was a life of compassion, service and humility.
Few honours were bestowed on him. In 1980, the Government of India awarded him the Padam Shri (which he surrendered after Operation Blue Star in 1984), Punjab government awarded him the Lok Kala Academy Award. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but did not get it. He died in Chandigarh in 1992 at the age of eighty-eight. In 1986, Bhagat Puran Singh in his will had made Dr. Bibi Inderjit Kaur (his adopted daughter) the life-president of the Pingalwara Society. Though a practicing doctor, she has been devoting much of her time for the management and expansion of the Pingalwaras.

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