Karam Singh, Sant
Sikh Saint of much Renown and Influence (1826-1903)
Was born in 1826 at village of Qaziari in Gujjarkhan tahsil of Rawalpindi district, now in Pakistan. His father, Kirpa Singh, and mother, Subi, were devoted Sikhs, and Karam Singh inherited their religious disposition. He learnt to read and write Punjabi from the village granthi or scripturereader and enlisted in the Sikh army of Lahore in 1844. He received the rites of the Khalsa at the hands of Ram Singh, a follower of Bhai Maharaj Singh, and spent most of his time in meditation. Upon the dissolution of the Sikh array after the annexation of the Punjab to British India in 1849, Karam Singh joined the Corps of Guides which had been raised by the British in the Sutlej territory in 1846, and which was later reorganized as 5th (Guides) Battalion of the 12th Frontier Force Regiment, with Mardan near Peshawar being its normal duty station. For him the change made little difference and he continued his routine of spending off-duty hours in prayer in the regimental gurdwara or in solitary meditation on the bank of a nearby stream Kalapani, besides voluntary service in the common kitchen.
In 1857, the Guides formed part of the force that went from the Punjab to the aid of the British locked in a critical combat with Indian soldiers. Delhi fell to the British on 20 September 1857 after a siege lasting five months. The victorious soldiers fell upon the city and freely indulged in loot and massacre. According to an eye-witness account quoted from Martin, R. Montgomery, The Indian Empire:
"Enormous treasures were looted, and each individual soldier amassed a rich booty. Almost every house and shop had been ransacked and plundered after its inmates were killed, irrespective of the fact whether they were actual rebels or even friends of the British. The General had issued an order to spare women and children, but it was honoured more in breach than in observance."
During this unrestrained pillage, officially permitted, Karam Singh, who had come to Delhi with his regiment, protected several families by standing guard outside their doors, refusing to accept any reward for his help. He was one soldier who stood aloof from this wholesale plunder.
Karam Singh returned to Mardan with his regiment. To be able to devote himself fully to his spiritual pursuit, he resigned from the army. The legend persists till today that once as he remained absorbed in meditation for long hours, he was reported absent from duty, but the officer who went to check up found him present. When Karam Singh, it is said, heard of this strange occurrence, he quit the army. His fame as a sant spread and visitors began to pour in to see him. For their sake, a few thatched huts were constructed near Hoti, a town close to Mardan, a well was sunk, and Guru ka Langar started – all by voluntary service in which soldiers from the Guides also participated.
Sant Karam Singh who still loved his solitude, himself did not relish all this hubbub and often retired to a gupha, that is underground cell or dugout, 3 km away. He did not deliver lengthy discourses or sermons, but people felt inspired by his pious manner. Many became his disciples. He had his admirers among Hindus and Muslims and among the turbulent Pathan tribals. He did not go out of Hoti Mardan during the rest of his life, except once when he undertook a pilgrimage to Panja Sahib, Amritsar and Haridvar.
In the beginning of 1903, he appointed Aya Singh, an orphan who had been at the dera since his childhood, his successor, and himself retired to the village of Saidu, 25 km away. Here he stayed in the house of a poor old lady, Mai Devaki. But he did not have long to live and passed away peacefully on 21 January 1903. According to his own wish, his body was not cremated but carried in a procession of hymn-singing mourners to the River Indus to which it was consigned. A memorial was raised in his honour at Saidu.