Earl James Ramsay, Lord Dalhousie, was born in April of 1812 at Dalhousie Castle in Scotland. A third son, he was a small child who grew up to be a small man, but there was nothing small about his short career. His family was not wealthy by aristocratic standards and he was driven to work harder than his peers. He married at the age of twenty-four, and entered parliament the following year. By the time he was thirty-two he was president of the Board of Trade, and at age thirty-six, he accepted the post of Governor-General of India.
Arriving in India in 1848 and carrying with him a formidable reputation for administrative efficiency, he set about creating the modern map of India by annexing, often in harsh military actions, the Punjab and the areas to the north and west of it. A meticulous manager, he established the structures which would run India right up to its liberation from British rule a century later and beyond, including railway lines, roads and telegraphs. One of the territories he annexed shortly after his arrival was the area now known as Himachal Pradesh, where the hill station that still bears his name is situated. Built as a retreat where British administrators could escape the intolerable summer heat of the plains below, the town of Dalhousie is situated on and around five hills. Located on the western edge of the Dhauladhar mountain range of the Himalayas, it is surrounded by scenic snow-capped peaks. At six- to nine-thousand feet above sea level, the best time to visit is in the summer. Scottish and Victorian architecture is prevalent in the bungalows and churches in the town.
Lord Dalhousie’s stringent policies resulted in his being created Marquis, and he returned from India after eight years of service with the Koh I Nur or ‘Mountain of Light’ diamond, now the centre-piece of the crown worn by the late Queen Mother, strapped to his waist. India had taken its toll on his already fragile health, and he died in 1860 at the age of forty-eight. Lord Curzon said of him that ‘No man ever gave his life to his Country, more completely or with more consuming devotion.’
One man among many who resisted Lord Dalhousie was Ma-harajah Singh, a sant sipahi (saint-soldier) who toured the Punjab exhorting the Sikh Punjabis to rise up against the British. Lord Dalhousie wrote to Punjab Governor Henry Lawrence in 1849: ‘Maharaja [sic] Singh has started a khalsa lehar (Sikh movement), and this should be crushed at all costs or else the English cannot step into Punjab.’ I find it interesting that he, a Scotsman, refers to the conquerors as ‘the English.’ Maharajah Singh continued to move from village to village, stirring up Sikh resistance and plotting to get Sikh soldiers in the British army to rise against their masters. He was arrested after his plan to subvert British troops leaked out, and was sent to Fort William in Calcutta, where he was systematically tortured during interrogation. After that, he was shifted to a jail in Singapore, where he died in 1855.
On the 20th July, 1855, another sant sipahi by the name of Sawan Singh was born at Memansinghwala in the Ludhinana district of the Punjab. He was educated first at village schools and then at a mission high school. He enlisted in the 24th Punjab Regiment, and after training, joined the Indian Military Engineering Service, where he served from 1886 to 1911. In spite of his years in the army, Sawan Singh never saw military action and was the most peace-loving of men. If the Western perspective finds a contradiction, it is only a perspective. In the Sikh tradition, the military and the spiritual blur: men are called Lions and walk armed in the streets. Throughout his military career, he was preoccupied with spiritual matters, and studied all the texts that were available to him from a variety of religious sources. He also visited temples and teachers, and met his spiritual master, Jaimal Singh, in 1894. When Jaimal Singh died in 1903, Sawan assumed the duties of guru, and retired to Jaimal Singh’s ashram at Beas in 1911, where he lived until his death in 1948, shortly after liberation, and the partition of India and Pakistan with its attendant horrors.
It is said that in the last year of his life he stood on the roof-tops looking down at the stream of refugees pouring into the ashram and wept, the first time that anyone had ever seen him do so. Here we see him on the verandah of a building situated in Dalhousie, where, towards the end of his life, he often went to escape the summer heat and to preach, counsel, initiate and vari-ously perform all the duties and functions of a guru or spiritual master.
During a tour of duty as a District Commissioner in the Punjab, Sir Colin Garbett, the squire who had retired to White River, visited the ashram and met Sawan Singh, then known as ‘the Great Master’. He was so impressed that after settling his doubts as to whether it would conflict with his Christianity, he requested initiation and became a disciple, no doubt attempting the arduous two and a half hours of daily meditation required of followers. That he brought the ideas and practices of a Punjabi guru to the White River area was to be an important node in my mother’s history and my own. At that time, however, in the latter half of the 1930s, my mother was a teenager at Escort High School under the kindly but disciplinarian eye of the headmaster, Colonel Martin – my wife Julia’s grandfather.