How a humble, low-ranking Sepoy Harbhajan Singh came to be deified and venerated as Baba Harbhajan is a narrative that straddles military mythology, religious beliefs and the credulousness with which mountain-people (being a ‘pahaari’ by birth i can relate to that characteristic!!) lend credence to tales of the supernatural.
The most popular account says that Sepoy Harbhajan Singh, a village boy from the Kapurthala district of Punjab, enlisted in the army at an early age and found himself stationed on the misty heights of the Sino-Indian border near Nathu La pass. The year 1968 had seen heavy rainfall and vicious floods in the region. In Oct of that year while escorting a supply carrying mule caravan from his battalion headquarters to a lonesome outpost, he slipped and fell into a fast flowing stream and was washed away. The search for his body had to be abandoned after a couple of days due to the inclement weather. At this point of his tale, legend takes over and you are told that he appeared in the dream of one of his sepoy-friends in the unit and informed him that he was no longer alive. He told him the exact spot where his body could be found and asked him to build a small ’samadhi’ or shrine at that spot. He is also said to have pledged to his friend that he would always patrol that area and never give up being a soldier. The jawan upon waking dismissed the dream as a manifestation of his personal grief at the loss of his friend and didn’t even talk about it. However, when another member of the unit had an exact similar dream, it seemed too much of a coincidence and a search party was sent to the spot that had been described in the dream. His body was found there. He was cremated with full military honours, and as per the wish expressed in the dream, a “Samadhi” was made at Chhokya Cho. Just to digress here~ that structure is now referred to as the old Baba-mandir and the present location of the shrine, constructed in 1982, is about 10-12 kms from there. The old site was comparatively inaccessible with steep stairs, so for the convenience of his followers the shrine was shifted to its present locale at the junction of Kupup Gnathang road and the trail leading to Menmecho Lake.
The story may have ended there but for the second part of what he is said to have pledged to in the dream. It’s a tale repeated over and over again of how soldiers deployed in that area since then have seen the ‘ghost-rider’~ a lone man on horse patrolling the place. Forces from the other side of the border have also reported similar sightings. The Chinese actually set a chair aside for him during the flag meets. One tale gleefully told is about a Chinese officer who attempted to sit on that chair and was “thrown down by Baba’s spirit”. Over the years Indian army battalions stationed there have come to believe even more in the power of the soldier-saint. They say his ghost warns them of any impending attack three days in advance. Some tell you of how his spirit roams around the camps at night and wakes up soldiers who may have dozed off during their watch. He has appeared in the dreams of many an army man and pointed out loopholes and unprotected areas from where the Chinese could attack. And since these have mostly proved accurate, the legend of Baba Harbhajan Singh has only grown and spread. The gratitude of the army units stationed in the area can be seen in the rows of plaques that line the walls of the shrine.
The popularity of the legend has elevated the complex to a pilgrimage spot and hordes of devout worshippers from all over Sikkim and Bengal throng the place with the faith that their problems will be resolved by the Baba who had came back from the dead to protect his kinsmen. People bring offerings of bottles of water with names inscribed which they arrange to be collected after a weeks time—that being the time Baba is supposed to take to purify them. Sometimes they just take back the unmarked ones lying there ~ the faith being that the water left with Baba becomes holy and is capable of curing ailments. You are told that this blessed water is to be consumed within three weeks. Some believe slippers kept in the temple help to cure gout and other foot problems. Followers who cannot reach the place send ‘letters of requests’ which are opened and read out in the ‘office-room’ by Baba’s associates.
What most people find really fascinating however, is the military folklore that has grown around the shrine. Taking care of the complex is part of the responsibilities assigned to the unit stationed in that location. The army-like barrack that forms the ‘mandir’ is basically a three room structure.The central room or the ’shrine’ has a large portrait of the young-turbaned-jawan in his olive green Indian army uniform along with pictures of other Sikh Gurus and Hindu deities. There is a smaller room which serves as the office cum storeroom and is filled with water bottles, unused slippers, tooth brushes and other sundry items brought in by devotees as ‘offerings’. On the right is Baba’s personal room that houses all essential household belongings from clothes, shoes and slippers to a camp cot for sleeping. Barefooted soldiers guard the place and his uniform and boots are cleaned on a daily basis; his bed is laid out and his meals are cooked and served with the complex closing during his meal times. His portrait shuttles between the various rooms depending upon the activity he is supposedly engaged in. Caretakers are ready to swear that each morning the bed sheets appear crumpled as if someone had slept over them and sometimes even the carefully polished boots are soiled and covered with mud as if someone has worn them for patrolling. A souvenir shop and a cafe also form part of the complex. Even more bizarre is the fact that till he was ‘retired’ in 2006, Harbhajan Singh’s pay check was not stopped and was dutifully credited into his account. Realists of course say that this ‘ghost’s-salary’ was nothing but the pension-payment to the next of kin of a deceased soldier, a normal army practice. The fact however remains that he also received his regular army-kit given to every soldier and was granted annual leave in September every year. A vehicle with his packed belongings and his portrait on the side would wind its way down to Dibrugarh station and was probably instrumental in propagating the belief in his powers. A berth was reserved for him on the Dibrugarh Express, two or three jawans accompanied his belongings and the portrait to his hometown and also brought them back the same way. The army also steadily promoted him up the ranks and he was retired as a “Honorary Captain” in recognition of his contributions.
Retired he may be, but Baba Harbhajan’s aura lives on. It is easy enough to be dismissive about the inexplicable muddying of his boots, the strange sightings of his ghost, haunting encounters with his spirit among the ranks or even the miraculous healing powers accorded to him ~ regarding it all as pandering to superstition. The fact however, is that in that treacherous, unfriendly terrain his story provides some morale-boosting-solace to the soldiers manning those isolated posts. The miracle, i felt is the strength the soldiers derive from his unseen presence. Living in the comforting cocoon of our city lives who are we to question this faith. Somethings are beyond logical explanations and the parting thought that stayed with me was this line from the Bard~
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”