'Harbhajan Baba ki Jai', says the taxi driver as he crosses the rickety bridge over the Teesta River. 'Harbhajan Baba' is revered across Sikkim as a sacred entity. And this is his story.
LATE SEPOY Harbhajan Singh was enrolled into the Punjab Regiment on Fbruary 9, 1966. Born in the village of Browndal in Kapurthala district of Punjab, he enlisted in the army at an early age and found himself posted on the misty heights of the Sino- Indian border near Nathula Pass.
The year 1968 saw heavy rainfall and vicious floods in the region. On 4 October, 1968, while escorting a mule caravan from his battalion headquarters at Tukla to Deng Chukla, he fell into a fast- flowing stream and was washed away. The search for his body continued for a couple of days but was abandoned due to inclement weather. And one day, Harbhajan Singh appeared in the dream of one of the sepoys in his unit. In the dream, he informed his colleague that he was no longer alive and told him the exact spot where his body would be found. He asked him to construct a Samadhi at the spot where his body would be found. After saying that he will always patrol in the area and never give up being a soldier, he disappeared. The man woke up and dismissed the dream as a manifestation of his grief for Harbhajan Singh’s loss.
It wasn’t until another member of the same unit had the same dream down to the last detail that suspicions were aroused. It seemed an incredible coincidence that two people could have dreamed the same sequence of events. When a search party was dispatched to the spot that had been described in the dream, late Sepoy Harbhajan Singh’s body was found. He was cremated with full military honours and a Samadhi was made at Chhokya Cho as per the wishes that he had expressed in his dream. The first part of the dream had been accurate and what about the second half about remaining a soldier forever? Soon reports of a man seen patrolling the area began filtering in. Soldiers deployed in the area would talk of a lone uniformed man on horse patrolling the region. Forces on the other side of the border confirmed these reports and claimed that they too had seen the ghost rider. Over the years, soldiers in the area began seeing Harbhajan Singh in their dreams where he instructed them of loopholes and unprotected areas from where the Chinese could attack. His instructions generally proved to be accurate and the legend of Baba Harbhajan Singh grew. Meanwhile, the popularity of the shrine was also growing. It gained significance as a religious spot and people came with the faith of having their problems solved or their infirmities cured by the Baba who had come back from the dead. The Samadhi dedicated to Harbhajan Singh consisted of a three room complex where a bed would be laid out for him and his uniform and boots would be displayed for the visitors. Caretakers of the Samadhi would swear that each morning the bed sheets would be crushed as if someone had slept in the bed the previous night and the carefully polished boots would be soiled and covered with mud. This conundrum only added to the Babas followers, who came in truckloads.
The Indian army realised the importance of Late Sepoy Harbhajan Singh and in honour of his contribution, he was promoted to Honorary Captain. A pay check would be sent home to Kapurthala every month and more interestingly, he would go home on annual leave on September 14 every year. Soldiers would pack his trunk with basic essentials and ‘Capt Harbhajan’ would be accompanied by two soldiers all the way to Kapurthala by train and brought back after a month the same way. This tradition continued for years until he was retired a few years back.
Following the twisting narrow roads at a steep incline, taxis and cars snake their way to 14000 ft to visit Harbhajan Baba every year. Devout believers from all over Sikkim and Bengal visit the Samadhi bringing the sick and the elderly in the hope of a miracle. They bring bottles of water and take back those lying there. It is believed that water left at the Samadhi over a period of time turns to holy water and is capable of curing ailments. Food is served to the devotees who make the arduous journey by the soldiers looking after the Samadhi.
The Samadhi dedicated to Harbhajan Baba is located amidst a beautiful panorama of high mountains broken in places by gushing waterfalls and dotted by multi-coloured shrubs. En route, one crosses beautiful lakes and hamlets that resemble something out of a picture postcard. One such village is Kyangnosla. The ascent is steep and often takes skilled driving. In order to reach the Samadhi, a detour must be taken along the road that leads to the Sino- Indian border post of Nathula which was opened for trade recently. The Samadhi attracts people from all religions – In its own way, it has promoted a certain secular equanimity in the region – a rare feat in today’s world.
Taxi drivers and soldiers passing through the area generally stop at the Samadhi to pay obeisance to the revered Baba. Not doing so is supposed to bring bad luck. In a society that is dictated by tradition and supported on the pillars of superstition, it is not uncommon to find a legend of this kind. Perhaps the Chinese are just as superstitious as we are because at the monthly flag meetings between the two nations at Nathula, the Chinese set a chair aside for Harbhajan Baba.
And as the red flag bespeckled with stars flaps in the icy wind next to the tricolour, a lone figure perhaps stands and watches- ever alert, ever watchful, ever zealous, and ever protective of his country’s honour. A zeal that has lasted beyond death.